A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

TOUCH: Mood Designer Fabrics

Silk charmeuse. Iridescent chiffon. China silk habotai. Poplin, corduroy, and velvet. Shangtung. Houndstooth and herringbone. Tuile. Lace. These are just some of the treasures that await on the third floor of 225 West 37th Street.

Wedged between a loading dock and a scaffolding, number 225 looks just like any other garment-district office building--were it not for the hordes of twentysomething design assistants in skinny jeans and boots crowding into the elevator and spilling out onto the third floor. They roam the narrow aisles stacked floor to ceiling with rolls of fabric, clutching scraps of paper torn from magazines, trying to match color and texture to the feathers of a bird, or the feeling of a night sky. Mood salespeople scurry between the bolts with enormous shears, lopping off samples left and right.

But for the casual visitor, Mood Designer Fabrics offers a feast for the fingers. There’s nubbly tweet and itchy netting, tufted shags and glinting sequins. Rich brocades and heavy quilting loll in one corner, while filmy chiffon and lace flutter from another. Rows of trim offer dangling pompoms, crystalline baubles, and tickling fringes. There’s a section of feathers, and one of eyelet leather and slippery vinyl, and a more sedate corner of wool suiting. Perhaps lurking between the taffeta and the seersucker is the next fabric to adorn models on Paris runways and plastic hangers in Chinatown knockoff booths.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

SOUND: The bells of St. Martin’s Church, Harlem

Parishioners in Sunday hats trickled from the doors of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church onto the sidewalk of 122nd Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. As throbbing SUVs and wheezing tour buses idled at the stoplight, the air above rang with the tintinnabulation of one of only two carillons in New York City. When the tolling ceased, I glanced up at the ninety-foot bell tower and glimpsed a shadow darting beneath the bells: Michael Smith, the self-described “unofficial, unpaid Quasimodo of St. Martin’s.”

The carillon is the largest instrument known to mankind. Wires connect a “keyboard” of pedals and knobs to clappers on the bells. St. Martin's forty-two bronze bells, which were cast in 1949, comprise three and a half octaves. The smallest is the size of a flowerpot, and a man could curl up inside the largest.

In contrast to his ancient and enormous instrument, Michael Smith is an unassuming middle-aged man in khakis. I had the privilege of meeting Michael on two previous occasions, when he had invited me up to the carillon room—a pigeon-spattered box accessed by a ladder high in the church tower—to watch him play.

As I listened to the tapping of Michael’s worn penny loafers on the pedals and the rattle and creak of the wood as his fists slammed down on the batons, I felt like I was hearing the secret heartbeat of these bells whose ringing can be heard within a six-block radius of the church. Michael once described carillon playing as a “pointillistic art”: one strike of a pedal or baton creates a note that cannot be dampened, and the sounds layer and merge in an “illusion of polyphony.”

Fittingly, St. Martin’s carillon owes its existence to a civic polyphony of sorts. The instrument was built in 1939 to celebrate the resurrection of the church from a fire that almost destroyed it, and was financed entirely by donations from the working-class families of the parish. Today’s congregation, however, lacks the funds needed maintain it. The bells need to be rotated. The tower roof needs to be repaired, and the bricks are crumbling. Because their music carries so far, the bells effectively have a constituency of their own. The challenge is to convince potential donors that they are not financing a church but rather preserving a more ecumenical piece of Harlem’s history.

Michael once told me, quoting from Ovid, that one thing he loves about playing the bells is being “a voice and nothing more.” After his plinks, clangs, and clongs have faded into the Harlem afternoon, no one knows that the “sweaty-looking white guy walking back to the subway” (as Michael put it) was the reason that they had paused, if only for a moment, to look up--and wonder, and listen.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I set out for the Terrace of Crispness on an August afternoon. Traffic slunk along the BQE. A haze hung over the Manhattan skyline. My skin stuck to the car seat. When I finally pulled into the parking lot of the Staten Island Botanical Garden, at Snug Harbor Cultural Center, I had my doubts that anything crisp could sustain itself against the limpness of the day.

To judge by the map on the SIBG website, the Chinese Scholar's Garden offers a feast for the senses, comprising, among other attractions, a "Tea House of Hearing Pines" and a "Billowing Pine Court," a "Cool Jade Pavilion or Pavilion of Chilly Green," a "Gurgling Rock Bridge," and a "Meandering Cloud Wall." But on this afternoon, the pines were silent and still; the jade pavilion was lukewarm at best; the gurgling rock bridge offered only a trickle; and there were no clouds to meander across walls.

I held out hope for the Terrace of Crispness, traipsing through the garden's tunnels, walkways, and courtyards. Then I stepped onto an octagonal balcony that jutted over a pond. A breeze wafted across a small marble table at the center. I noticed a sign mounted on one of the walls: "Moon Viewing Pavilion Terrace of Crispness" (and, in smaller letters, "Bell Atlantic"). I immediately began parsing the space for signs of the crispness I'd traveled so far to experience. Perhaps the sharp angles of the half-octagonal pavilion? The tangy aroma of the Austrian pine tree shading one side? The chipper susurrations of the waterfall? My search felt a little forced. Perhaps the crispness was best observed during moon viewings, as the sign implied. I imagined standing at the edge of the terrace on a clear night, the moonlight limning the distant willow branches and filtering through the latticework, sending milky shadows swimming across the peaked roof.

Unfortunately, the garden isn't open at night, so the complete experience will have to remain in the imagination. But isn't that a fitting place, in a way, for a tiny corner of this immense city in which one might still discover a moment of crispness at a bend in a garden path on an August afternoon?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

TOUCH: Platza treatment at the Russian and Turkish Baths

“You are very strong,” Victor the platza man told me moments after I’d emerged from the Radiant Heat Room at the Russian and Turkish Baths, sodden oak leaves plastered to my skin. He draped a towel over my shoulders and pushed me onto a bench, pressing a fingertip to my neck. “Good heart rate,” he pronounced. “But sit still for a few minutes.” My skin felt like it had a pulse of its own: it was throbbing and flushed from the beating I’d received at his hands.

The Russian and Turkish Baths, on East Tenth Street in Alphabet City, are a relic of another era. Founded in 1892, when the city’s poor relied on public baths for hygiene, they’ve made the transition to the twenty-first century with few concessions to modernity. My platza treatment took place in the Russian Sauna, a rock-walled furnace outfitted with cement benches and plastic buckets filled with ice-cold water from continuously running faucets. There was no semblance of privacy: in fact, I had about twelve spectators, ranging from twentysomethings in string bikinis to Hasids with their peyos tucked behind their ears.

Wearing only a bikini myself, I followed Victor into the two-hundred-degree sauna, where he had me lay facedown on a plywood board covered in a thin towel. Since I was on the highest bench, the heat was at its most intense. Within seconds it seared my nostrils. But I was soon distracted by a slippery whack across my upper back, and my nose was driven into the board. Victor tossed a cool wet towel over my head. With each thrash I inhaled sharply, taking in a mouthful of sopping terry cloth. I smelt mildew and the astringent soap mixed with an uncanny scent of autumn leaves. The broom, or venik—made of oak-leaf branches tied with string and soaked in olive oil soap—was softer than I’d expected, sort of like a bunch of rags, but Victor spared nothing in his pummeling. Oak leaves collected in my palms. My pores tingled; time and consciousness were quickly obliterated.

Improbably, with each hit of the venik, I became at once mores anxious and more relaxed: my body recoiled from the intensity of the treatment and surrendered to it. Within minutes, I was limp. Whenever I thought I couldn’t stand it anymore and was about to cry out to be released, Victor threw a bucked of frigid water over me, shocking my body into submission until the heat peaked again. Between beatings he flipped me from front to back and side to side, rubbed my skin with a grainy soap of some sort, pounded my muscles with his fists, and manipulated my limbs into gymnastic contortions, so at one point my legs were bent backwards in an arc almost over my head.

And as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Victor slapped me on the shoulder and ushered me out the door into the frigid swimming pool waiting just outside. As I dunked my head under and resurfaced, stray leaves—and all the worries of the past week—streamed from my skin, and I stepped trembling onto solid ground, more grateful than I could have imagined.

Monday, August 4, 2008

SOUND: Mike Pallotta’s cutlery-grinding truck

One of the most wonderful things about living in New York is stumbling upon a living anachronism: a barbershop pole, a drugstore fountain, a shoe-polish stand. That’s how I felt a few weekends ago when, strolling down a Brooklyn street, I noticed an antiquated green Chevy delivery truck idling alongside the Outbacks and Land Rovers that lined the block. As I approached, a muffled bell clanged from within. On the truck’s backside I made out the words The Original…. Mike’s Since 1941 While ‘U’ Wait On the Spot bracketed by a painting of scissors and a knife.

A metallic rasping drifted from the truck’s open windows, mingling with the hiss of a sprinkler and cries of children in the park across the street. When I peered inside, I met Mike Pallotta, a potbellied middle-aged man in an embroidered skullcap and a pinstriped shirt. Two sleepy pit bulls, Boss and Princess, snuffled around his feet. Mike’s eyeglasses slid down his nose as he bent over a honing wheel mounted inside the custom-fitted oak-lined truck, inherited from his father (I later learned), who taught him the grinding trade. Mike raised his eyes, grinned down at me, and told me he was working on a pair of $400 haircutting scissors handed to him moments ago by one of the residents of this street. “I gotta take my time with these ones,” he said in his custardy Brooklyn accent, holding the scissors up to the light and testing their sharpness by snipping at a scrap of paper towel.

Mike told me he’s been operating his roving cutlery grinding business since 1941. Though he earns his living working for the District Attorney during the week, on weekends he wakes up and thinks, Where do I want to go today? Then he fires up the old jalopy, parks it on a street corner somewhere in Kings County, and waits to see who shows up. After spending his childhood in Bay Ridge, he’s especially fond of Brooklyn’s coastal neighborhoods, where he can smell the ocean as he works.

I told him I’d be right back and hurried home—a block away—to grab a French picnic knife for him to sharpen. I wrapped it in a dishtowel and ran back to the truck, clutching a few dollar bills and feeling like a nineteenth-century housewife. As the grinding wheel began to spin, its slow, lopsided thumping turned into a high-pitched whirring, then a whisk-whisk sound as Mike’s thick, dust-rimmed fingers held the blade to the stone. Sparks flew. After giving the knife a final polish, we exchanged money, blade, and a handshake through the truck’s window.

A few hours later, driving through Brooklyn, Mike’s truck pulled up alongside my car at a stoplight. I turned my head, then the light turned green and the truck lurched off, with a clang of its bell, to offer another part of the borough its susurrations of the past.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

TASTE: Glaser's Bake Shop's Black-and-White Cookie

I was skeptical of the black-and-white cookie. There was something obscene about their nearly half-foot diameter, the chocolate and vanilla icing: it was like having your cookie at eating it too. They always seemed to lurk near the beef jerky, stifled by Saran wrap, or beside dry-looking pastries in Italian bakery windows. But once I learned they were an iconic New York City treat, I had to find out what all the fuss was about.

So I headed to Glaser's Bake Shop, a century-old Upper East Side institution, and ostensibly the progenitor of the black-and-white cookie. Owner Herb Glaser couldn't confirm this; indeed, he knew very little about the origins of his shop's yin-yang confection. He did reminisce about having two for dessert when he got home from school ("I was a fat kid") and eating the white half first "to save the best for last." He told me Glaser's makes the cookies fresh each day, using a cupcake batter thickened by flour, which creates the cookies' signature cakelike texture. Both icings have a fondant base, spread on with a spatula: you do the white first, let it set, then the black, he told me. "After a while you get pretty good at making a straight line." Mr. Glaser said the bakery has made few changes to the original recipe, save eliminating shortening in a concession to the recent New York City ban on trans fats.

The Glaser's counterwoman plucked a cookie from the glass case and dropped it into a box wound with bakery twine. Though I carried it around all day, when I got home the two halves remained intact. I took my first bite, right down the center line. There was a slight resistance as my teeth met the surface. The sweetness of the icing melted into the floury plumpness of the yellow lemon-vanilla cookie, sticking to the back of my teeth. I imagined in another version, the icing might set into a crust that would crackle with each bite. The domelike shape made the cookie spongier in the center and firmer toward the edges. I found I could achieve a black-and-white melding only every three bites: I had to nibble down around the center bite to be able to reach it again. But when I did, I knew I was getting a taste of New York: stark contrasts coming together in a brash, frustrating, but ultimately satisfying way, and a mysterious past to make each bite just a little richer.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

SIGHT: Horseshoe crabs spawning, Brooklyn

A few Sundays ago I headed out to Dead Horse Bay, in Marine Park, Brooklyn, to see the annual horseshoe crab spawning. The crabs’ mating season peaks each May and June at evening high tides on the full and new moons. As the bus pulled up to a ramshackle bus stop across from Floyd Bennett Field, the only sign that anything unusual was happening in this desolate part of the city was a cluster of pilgrims in anoraks and rubber boots huddled beneath the Q35 sign, where we had been told to meet for the hike to the beach, organized by the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment. As it turned out, we’d all disembarked at the wrong stop, but we finally found our way to the trailhead with the help of a kind man in a car--a gesture of rare New York City altruism. The air smelled like honeysuckle as we wound through tall grass to the beach. Strangers chatted and shared almonds from their tote bags.

Though it had rained all afternoon, by the time we arrived at the beach the sun had started to streak the clouds pink. As we approached the water’s edge, we glimpsed the brown, shiny, domelike backs of a pair of horseshoe crabs washing to shore along with droves of rubbish (comprising a curious number of shoe parts, making me wonder if there was a shoe factory nearby). The male approached the larger female and clasped onto her back so casually it seemed almost happenstance. But they remained steadfastly joined even as the tides buffeted them to and fro. Sometimes another male joined the pair in a crustacean ménage à trois. Single crabs in search of mates buzzed along the shoreline with the smooth but erratic movement of bumper cars.

Some of the visitors lifted the crabs out of the water and passed them around. The horn-like tail swooped up and down like a drawbridge, threatening to poke someone’s eye out, but the BCUE naturalist assured us that we weren’t harming the animals. The crabs were heavy, their carapaces cool and smooth. It was incredible to think that these creatures had been engaged in the same dance since before the dawn of human civilization, when giant dragonflies droned overhead instead of JFK-bound airplanes, and the prurient spectators were cockroaches rather than Gore-Texed urbanites in search of a last weekend adventure before returning home to their suppers.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


What could be more New York than a PowerNap—and a trademarked one at that? Nestled in the heart of Midtown, just west of Columbus Circle, is Yelo, a “wellness sanctuary” offering naps and reflexology massage treatments: multisensory experiences designed to relax and renew in the time it would take to drink a venti latte. “Yelo is about time-efficient, results-oriented relaxation,” the Web site promises. And one Friday, with an hour to spare between an art show and a dinner party, this was exactly what I needed.

Inside the lobby tea lights flickered and pillows beckoned bearing the slogan NAP YOUR WAY TO THE TOP. A Yelo representative greeted me and handed me a multipage questionnaire on my health history and napping preferences. He then led me to the back of the room, where a uniformed “nap butler” of sorts guarded the entrances to the nap pods, or YeloCabs. These “patented treatment cabins” are maroon and yellow cubicles arranged in a sort of honeycomb, a red strip of carpet leading to each numbered door.

The Yelo representative settled me into what looked like a high-tech leather dental chair bolted to the floor in the center of the cabin. The room, purportedly filled with purified air, felt as sterile as an airplane cabin, and was constructed of similar material. The only accoutrements were a pyramid of rolled towels, two small trash cans (for what? I wondered), a revolving stool (for visitors?), and a pair of lit display shelves showcasing lotions and teas available for post-nap purchase. He left me to settle myself, assuring me, “I’ll be right back to tuck you in.” I found the intimacy of that prospect slightly unsettling. But when he returned he gave me the most businesslike tuck-in imaginable, arranging a beige cashmere blanket over me, adjusting the 500-thread-count pillow, and kneeling by the side of the chair to recline it into a “zero-gravity” position, to put my feet slightly higher than my head, which he told me was an optimal position for relaxation. Then he dimmed the lights, closed the door, and left me to my twenty minutes of high-powered slumber.

I had trouble getting to sleep because I couldn’t help myself from trying to optimize my level of relaxation. I fiddled with the recline position on the chair. I adjusted the blanket and pillow to achieve maximum softness against my skin. I squinted through the darkness at the beauty product offerings. I tried to dissect a faint whirring sound and regretted that I had chosen silence rather than a relaxation sound track (options include whale song, medieval chant, and “inner voyage”). With more deluxe nap packages, you can have a scent—such as fig or wild blackberry—piped into the room, but since I’d opted for the basic YeloNap, the room just smelled like vacuumed carpet. In twenty minutes, a “sunrise” gradually filled the pod with a pink-orange light that spread up the walls and ceiling, a lovely way to awaken, had I been asleep.

On my way out, as I sat in the lobby drinking a cup of water, I realized I did feel mysteriously refreshed. A guy in a windbreaker and big sneakers burst in clutching a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Glancing around nervously, as if afraid of being seen, he asked which nap package would give him the highest-value relaxation for his time. Nap your way to the top, I thought, pushing through the glass doors into rush hour.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

SIGHT: Birdhouse fence, Flatbush

A few blocks past the tabernacle churches, hair-braiding salons, and Laundromats of Church Avenue lies a quiet residential neighborhood. Dogs bark. Children play catch in driveways. Ornamental cabbages grow along the edges of the sidewalks. But at 615 Lenox Road, at the corner of East 43rd Street, the suburban Brooklyn birdsong seems to swell. This is the home of Manny, a Vietnam vet who for the last twenty years has been transforming the chain-link fence around his house into a paradise for local birds.

“Some people like cats, some people like dogs; I like birds,” Manny told me. He said he got the idea for the bird fence when he saw a similar installation in Texas, where he was in the air force. Manny is from Panama, middle-aged, with dark skin and milky blue eyes that give him the appearance of being blind, though his vision—in the many senses of the word—is obviously keen. On the afternoon I visited, he was making the rounds of his fence in camouflage pants, vivid blue and green Nikes, and a hat with earflaps held together by a safety pin. His house is modest, covered in faux-stone siding, a corrugated metal roof over the porch. But even from a few blocks away it’s the fence you notice first, and the bush in the front yard that quivers with the hundreds of birds that call 615 Lenox Road their home.

“In the mornings the sidewalk is filled with birds,” Manny says, gesturing down the street with the tip of his cane. He suffered injuries in the war and walks with a limp, and he claims his hands don’t work as well as they used to. Still, every morning he sifts birdseed into the hundreds of cages and birdhouses that festoon his fence, and the birds arrive in droves; some even spend the night. “But the neighbors don’t mind, because I keep things clean,” he says. Manny’s English is impeccable, though his accent is barbed by the five languages he picked up during the war.

Manny’s collection includes wooden birdhouses with heart-shaped holes and slanted roofs, bird churches with steeples nestled in beribboned Easter baskets, traditional wire cages with swinging perches and feeding dishes, bookshelves lined with miniature houses and bird figurines. The blank spaces along the fence—and there aren’t many—are filled in with bird-themed doormats and chair pads and other souvenirs, all draped with bright flower garlands.

As the birdhouse fence grew into a neighborhood fixture, he says, people began to leave contributions on his doorstep. During the winter, when there are fewer birds, he covers the houses with an equally motley collection of plastic bags—Sears, Duane Reade, Met Foods—to protect them from the weather. But in the spring he unveils them, and birdsong and the colors of his collection fill the Flatbush air once again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

TASTE: Warm arroz con leche on a cold winter night, Sunset Park

If, on a snowy evening, you find yourself in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, stop by the card table set up on outside Taqueria La Mixteca, across from the park on Fifth Avenue between Forty-second and Forty-third streets, and buy a cup of arroz con leche to sip as you walk. Arroz con leche, or “rice with milk,” is a Latin American drink of warm milk, rice, sugar, and cinnamon. It can also be served firm and chilled, like rice pudding, but I prefer it warm and sip-able, a hearty substitute for hot chocolate.

At Taqueria La Mixteca, the arroz con leche is made by Caroline, a middle-aged Mexican woman with wizened skin and smiling eyes. The taqueria is a nondescript storefront nestled among Fifth Avenue’s phone-card stores, fluorescent-lit hair salons, and bodegas—if it weren’t for the red and blue thermoses set up in front, you might walk right past it.

Most of the time Caroline can be found in the kitchen, where it’s warm, a black hairnet stretched across her forehead, frying up quesadillas in a haze of greasy smoke. She doesn’t speak English, but if you poke your head in, smile, and point to the sidewalk, she’ll bundle herself up and shuffle outside to sell you a cup of her concoction.

As she dips a tin ladle into the thermos and spoons the soupy drink into a Styrofoam cup, steam rises into the chill air. Walking along the street, ice crunching underfoot, cup the drink in your mittened hands and flip back the plastic top. The sweet milk will fill your mouth as the pieces of swollen, mushy rice slip down your throat and settle like a warm blanket in your stomach. It requires almost no chewing, just a slight pressure of the tongue against the roof of the mouth to flatten the rice grains, and the combination of nutty texture and creaminess matches the biting air and soft snow that blankets the park as evening falls.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

SOUND: The G train Recharging at Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn

On a typical day, the G train runs from Court House Square, in Long Island City, to Smith-9 Streets, in Red Hook, mowing a green zigzag swath across the outer boroughs. After discharging its last passenger in Brooklyn, the G continues along the tracks to the 4 Avenue F train station, in Gowanus, to recharge before chugging back toward Queens.

I used to live near this stop, an elevated outdoor platform with sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. But the sight I enjoyed most was the apple green circle at the front of the G train emerging over the railway bridge, its headlights dim. It chugs to a stop on the center track, sighs, flexes its brakes in rhythmic thrusts. It exhales a whoosh of pressurized brake steam, then shudders to stillness. The digital window signs still flicker from CROSSTOWN LCL to LAST STOP/SMITH-9 STS. There’s a metallic hum. The car lights dim. Sometimes a conductor moves through the cars with a broom.

Inevitably, an F train hurtles into the station, pings its doors open and closed, and sweeps out, hardly casting a glance at its hick cousin, who will never have its floors anointed with bags from Zaro’s Bread Basket, will never know the thrill of burrowing beneath the East River or the corner of Central Park.

But the G train has had a moment to collect itself. There is a clicking. The window signs go blank, then flash LONG IS. CITY/COURT SQ. The lights brighten. The train brakes suck in air as they get ready to roll. Folklorist Amanda Dargan claims that she hears the first musical phrase of the song Somewhere– as if singing “There’s a place for us” when this happens on the 4, 5, and 6 lines. But I can’t say as I’ve ever heard the G train sing.

The wheels turn over once, squeal to a stop, and rotate again with increased confidence. A shiver, then a grinding lurch. The pigeons that have settled on top of the cars scatter. The green G recedes against the skyline of a city it will never enter. It feels like--for a moment--I knew the G train, having witnessed its most vulnerable moment. But now it’s unreachable once again, like an old friend who’s moved on.